Joe Howlett was a fisherman, that is why he freed whales—that is why he cared—and, ultimately, that is why the well-known figure in the Canadian whale rescuing community lost his life.
On July 10, Howlett, was out on a Fisheries Department rib vessel off Shippagan in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with a small group of people as they pulled up to right whale that was entangled in fishing gear. It was their mission to free the animal. According to a longtime friend and fellow whale rescuer, Joe Conway, this particular rescue seemed simple but like most things in life every rescue is different and depends on the circumstances.
"It all depends on the amount of gear that's entangling the whale. It also depends on how the whale is behaving," Conway told VICE. "Every situation is different and it's not until you actually get there and start trying to remove this rope and webbing and net and things until you get to understand how complicated it can be."
"The came up alongside, he cut the whale free and it swam away and we're still not certain to what happened after that event. It's under investigation."
The way that Howlett was killed is currently not known, but he was standing in the boat when it happened. Fishing Minister Dominic LeBlanc released a statement following Howlett's death saying his "expertise and dedication will be greatly missed" and "we have lost an irreplaceable member of the whale rescue community" but also didn't specify exactly how Howlett was killed.
"At the time of the fatal incident, Mr. Howlett was on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) fast response vessel. DFO's Conservation and Protection officers and the Canadian Coast Guard took part in responding to the situation," reads the statement.
"There are serious risks involved with any disentanglement attempt. Each situation is unique, and entangled whales can be unpredictable."
The 59-year-old lobster fisherman was out helping guide a research team on the Shelagh, which he was captaining, when he was asked by the Department of Fisheries and Ocean to free a whale on July 5, which he successfully did, and the whale on the 10th that ultimately took his life.
In 2002, Howlett founded the Campobello Whale Rescue Team—Campobello is one of the Fundy Islands off the coast of New Brunswick. According to Conway—he felt a responsibility—he felt it was his duty to free the marine mammals from the entanglements of fishing ropes and nets.
"First of all, Joe was a fisherman, and he saw what would happen to a marine animal when it gets wrapped up in ropes and he felt concerned and sorry for the animal," Conway said. "He felt that he had a responsibility as a fisherman to make sure that rope was removed and he did everything in his power to do that."
The deaths of whales in fishing nets are nothing new in the north Atlantic, earlier this year, six whales were found dead, it's believed that some of them were tangled fishing gear. Right whales are currently experiencing what has been called a "unprecedented die-off"—only a little over 500 of the whales are left and they are one of the most endangered of all the large whales. This was something Conway realized and wanted to help with.
Even though he was "from away" Howlett made his home on the island, Conway told VICE, and was a cherished member of the community there with his wife and two grown sons. He was described by Conway as a gentleman—"emphasis on the gentle"—with a killer sense of humour and a strong drive to help out people and creatures around him. He was a man that Conway has no qualms describing as a hero.
"He is saving a animal and knowing that he is putting himself in danger," Conway said. "When he successfully disentangled a whale and it swam away, without any gear on, the look on his face and the sense of satisfaction that he had done worthwhile was tremendous and that it why I think that is why you can consider his a hero."
Put simply, Conway said, Joe Howlett was a man you wanted on your boat.
"If I went on a boat with him and it was sinking, I know he would make sure I got off first and he would worry about himself later."
"We're going to miss him."
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